Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Friday created a new process for reviewing and replacing derogatory names currently used on federal lands, and moved forward with immediately getting rid of one of those words: “squaw.”
The term has historically been used as a racist and sexist slur, particularly aimed at Native American women. There are currently more than 650 federal land units that use the word, according to a database maintained by the Board on Geographic Names, which is the federal board tasked with naming geographic places.
“Racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands,” Haaland said in a statement. “Our nation’s lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage ― not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression.”
The interior secretary announced her plan via two secretarial orders on Friday.
The first order formally identifies “squaw” as derogatory and creates a federal task force to find replacement names for geographic features on federal lands bearing the word. The newly created Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force will include representatives from federal land management agencies, as well as diversity, equity and inclusion experts from the Interior Department. The order also requires that the task force consult with tribes and consider public feedback on proposed name changes.
The second order creates a federal advisory committee to solicit, review and recommend changes to other derogatory geographic and federal land unit names. The Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will include representation from tribes, tribal organizations and experts on civil rights, anthropology and history.
The orders effectively speed up the process by which the Board on Geographic Names currently reviews and changes names used on federal lands. As of now, the board acts on a case-by-case basis that puts the onus on proponents to identify an offensive name and suggest a replacement. The process often takes years, and there are hundreds of names currently pending before the board.
Previous interior secretaries have identified and replaced derogatory names used on federal lands. In 1962, Secretary Stewart Udall identified the N-word as derogatory and directed a process for getting rid of it. In 1974, the Board on Geographic Names identified a pejorative term for “Japanese” as derogatory and eliminated its use, too.
A handful of states have passed bills prohibiting the use of “squaw” in the their official names of places, including in Montana, Oregon, Maine and Minnesota. There’s also legislation pending in Congress aimed at changing derogatory names on geographic features on public land units.